Virginia Beach Woman Chartered Plane To Rescue 300 Animals As Hurricane Maria Bore Down On Caribbean

By Mechelle Hankerson
The Virginian-Pilot

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) With Hurricane Maria bearing down, Sali Gear had two days to come up with a way to fly 300 animals out of harms way to get them to her farm in Virginia Beach. Her solution? Charter a plane, fast.


Sali Gear thought she had time to plan the largest animal rescue mission she’s ever taken on.

The Virginia Beach resident co-owns Island Dog Rescue, a local nonprofit that specializes in saving dogs from the U.S. Virgin Islands, where she grew up.

After Hurricane Irma devastated St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix, she planned to fly about 20 animals to the continental U.S. each day over a week.

Then Hurricane Maria threatened the Caribbean islands, and her plans.

Gear had two days to come up with a way to fly 300 animals to the area so they could go to her farm in Virginia Beach.
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Her solution? Charter a plane, fast.

The animals landed safely Tuesday.

“I did it because it had to be done,” she said before the animals arrived. “People have moved heaven and earth to make this happen.”

Gear said she hadn’t slept more than four hours any night for almost two weeks.

“This is a sprint, not a marathon,” she said. “I’m exhausted emotionally, physically, but spiritually, I’m not.”

Typically, Gear moves one or two animals at a time. She is on the board of directors for the St. Croix Humane Society and works with animal welfare groups on St. Thomas.

When the dogs arrived in Norfolk around 2 a.m. Tuesday, a bright orange note on each crate said: “I survived Hurricane Irma. I am still nervous. Please be cautious with me.”

Chris Sjolund, manager of the Virginia Beach-based animal rescue Hope for Life, said the handful of dogs her organization took seemed “highly adoptable” despite the trauma they’ve been through. She has worked with Gear before to rescue dogs from the Virgin Islands.

“They all seem happy,” she said. “Island dogs are like that.”

Some rescue groups picked the animals up at the airport to transfer them. Others met at Gear’s farm to take them to their new homes in places like Boston, Pittsburgh and Charlotte, N.C.

Gear doesn’t keep rescued dogs at her farm, and other groups will have picked up most of the animals by today.
In addition to rescue groups, local high schoolers organized to help Gear’s mission.

In less than 24 hours, more than 250 people, many from Virginia Beach, volunteered to help walk dogs, some of which had been in crates since Irma hit.

Tinsley’s mom, Susan Sarrett, was one of the volunteers who traveled to the Caribbean to help Gear right after Hurricane Irma. Before that, the Sarretts didn’t know Gear.

In addition to finding volunteers, Tinsley is organizing a pet food drive at Cape Henry Collegiate.

“I have such a big passion for dogs,” she said. “I love them so much, and we as people have to help them.”

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